“एकदा नैमिषारण्ये ऋषयः शौनकादयः..” Thus starts one of the best known Hindu rituals, the narration of the Satya Narayana Katha.
This introduction contextualizes three important things. The Hrishi : Shaunaka, son of the Vedic Gritasamada, credited with writing the Ṛgveda-Prātiśākhya, or phonetics of the RgVeda. The Occasion : a massive 12-day Satra (Yagya) with a 1000-strong assembly. The Location : Naimiṣāraṇya, a forest so ancient that it was mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; in the Bhagvat Purana as नैमिषे अनिमिष–क्षेत्रे and as Vishnu’s अरण्य-स्वरुप: गुरुःगुरुतमो धामः सत्यः सत्य-पराक्रमः । निमिषो-अ-निमिषः स्रग्वी वाचस्पति: उदार-धीः; part of the 8 Ashtakshara Swayam-Vyakta Kshetras of Lord Vishnu, where Dadhichi gave up his bones to forge Indra’s indomitable weapon.
To me, another striking part about the Katha’s milieu is that it’s occurring at a time when hrishis, shastris & bhakts, are beset with doubt, their world besieged by invading hordes through the ages. So they come, to a remote, sacred, forest charged with mysticism, on the banks of the Gomati, between the Panchala & Kosala Kingdoms.
These thoughts though, were far from my mind when I made my way to Naimiṣāraṇya in April of this year. The aim was to go to Chakra Teerth in Misrikh and view the temple complex. The flat north Indian plains were drowsy with golden wheat & sour mangoes when I made my way there. Harvesting was on.
The taxi driver discussed state politics as the car sped on the relatively smooth and clear mofussil roads. The feeling of कण कण में व्यापे हैं राम is immersive. City names in the area speak for themselves – Bharatpur, Lakshmanapur, Rampur, and the bustling town we were crossing, Sitapur. Apparently, Sita devi had returned to the arms of her mother in Naimiṣāraṇya, which was a Shakti Peeth as well.
So many traditions linked to just one place? We crossed the river Sarayan, and entered the teerthasthal.
Compared to the tightly-wrought, vast stone temple complexes of the south, the temples here, were diffused throughout the kshetra. Many had been recently renovated and were crowded with young, ash-smeared औघड़ साधु, village women tinkling with glass bangles and bored tour bus drivers,.
I slowly walked up the slope in the sunshine, and reached the site where the Vedas had been composed.
“E pandon se bach ke rahiye, didi,” my driver warned me for the hundredth time, “nahin paisa leb aur jane na dei.”
Among the open fields and broad, leafy trees, sat quiet, morose brahmins, manning their donation box. The banyan tree under which Vyas was to have composed many verses, wasn’t that old. Stacks of religious literature were placed under it and people took cursory rounds. Why they would fall for tales of its antiquity in the age of Google, was unclear.
I donated silently, generously and as I stepped away, the whole story of Naimiṣāraṇya’s unbroken tradition, hit me like a tonne of bricks.
This was where the hunted few regrouped over the ages, recharged and conferred on how to simplify faith for new generations to come! Our largely oral tradition was kept alive in times of brutal invasion and stress with retrospective stories, linking later times with what had no doubt occurred earlier, at Naimiṣāraṇya!
But oh! How bitter and thorough must’ve been the hunt.
Over at Hanuman Garhi, I gazed at the deep saffron idol of one of India’s most beloved Gods. Kids wanted to touch Him, young men wanted His aura, older ones bought charms by the armful.
The inherent mysticism of a Hindu teertha, is not obvious. It slowly starts to seep into the consciousness, as you proceed from entry to exit, ambling along worn and cool stone paths, among riotous fecund flora and fauna.
Finally, I made my way to the famed Chakra Teerth, one of the eight Swyambhu, Swayamstith temples of Vishnu. Brahma’s wheel pierced the earth here and an eternal spring burst forth, the waters of which cured everything!
Crossing a massive, spring-green peepul tree tied with all manner of saffron and red strings, I sought temples lining the sides of the Chakra and paid obeisance to Shri Ram, Shiv & Durga.
All had been renovated by local wealthy, Vaishya devotees, in marble. Their role in preserving local, semi-rural socio-religious infrastructure, is often overlooked. If not for their intervention, though garish, a lot more would have been irrevocably lost.
A pundit guided me to one under his charge. “You don’t have to take your shoes off,” he said, eyeing my fancy chappals, “but if you do, I’m here to see no one takes them”.
I shook my head, took them off gingerly so they wouldn’t touch my fingers, and bowed to the stone shivalinga. Its head had been struck clean off and replaced ages later.
The sorrowful history of the north, first to face every brutal invasion, struck me hardest, here. Of the entire complex spread over multiple clusters, it had the only authentic idols remaining from what must’ve been a late classical compound – these faceless Gods.
I’m not sure if you can sense the pensive heartache of being confronted by annihilation of what forms the core of your faith, but I was shaken and grieving as I exited the Chakra. Right outside, a sea of white caps, of the type worn by Marathi/ North Karnataka farmers, met the eye. Some laughing women flagged me down.
I laughed, in utter disbelief! “Volgade” I pointed and led them back inside to the spring. Unselfconsciously, they waded to the small pool meant for women. They hadn’t hesitated to check if I knew their language, though with Bangalore being my karmabhoomi, it was serendipity, but at its most surreal!
As I watched them, chattering excitedly in Kannada in the absolute heart of Shri Ram country in the navel of the world, I looked to my right and was stunned to find a message on an old temple wall, in Kannada, in a town where everyone spoke musical Awadhi! The despondency that had slacked me down these past few minutes, abated and a wild euphoria replaced it!
For someone who hopes to see her faith unite and strengthen the country, it was the clearest message I could’ve got from the legendary hrishis lingering in the remnants of that mighty forest.
As children who came of age in the golden era of opening markets and stable economic practices, straddling a world of easy public display of faith and private rational questioning, my generation is particularly struck by tangible loss and disadvantages of being Hindu in India. But we still have cheerful, colourful and festive Teerthas such as this, macrocosms within themselves, meant for the inquisitive and imaginative Indian mind, and they should be fully visited and absorbed!
My visit to Naimiṣāraṇya only brought forth the stark contrast of our immediate, hobbled past with the sheer strength of tradition that will carry us through, if we only seek to link ourselves with it. As long as there’s a patch of land where a hrishi of सनातन धर्म from ANY corner of this great country, can find safety to regroup & recharge, the ceaseless river of Time, cannot carry us away.
तीरथ वर नैमिष विख्याता, अति पुनीत साधक सिधी दाता.